October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is a worldwide campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer and to support people affected by the disease. It also helps to raise funds for research into the disease. Yesterday I received a very personal reminder about the importance of being breast aware. An old friend phoned to break the sad news that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. A breast lump was detected by her GP at a routine check-up and a lumpectomy (surgical removal of the lump) subsequently confirmed it’s malignancy. My friend is now awaiting a full mastectomy with follow-up chemotherapy and radiotherapy planned. I was gutted to hear this news.
Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Irish women after non-melanoma skin cancer, and the most common cause of cancer death in Irish women. In Ireland, more than 2,370 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2005, with 75 per cent of all breast cancer cases seen in women over the age of 50 years and 37 per cent in women over the age of 65. Breast cancer occurs mainly in women but occasionally occurs in men. Many people do not realize that men have breast tissue and that they too can develop breast cancer. The biggest risk factor however, apart from being female, is increasing age. Other risk factors include having an early menstruation or late menopause, not having had children or having a first child after the age of 30 and having a family history of breast cancer. On a more positive note, more women than ever before are surviving breast cancer and huge advances in medical care have meant that more people are able to live with cancer.
Breast awareness is about encouraging women to become more aware of their bodies generally and to get to know their own breasts. This is an important issue for all women in their mid-twenties and onwards, as learning how their breasts look and feel at different times will help women know what is normal for them and to recognise any irregular changes.
The breast awareness 5-point code is:
1. Know what is normal for you
2. Look and feel
3. Know what changes to look for
- size – if one breast becomes larger, or lower
- nipples – if a nipple becomes inverted (pulled in) or changes position or shape
- rashes – on or around the nipple
- discharge – from one or both nipples
- skin changes – puckering or dimpling
- swelling – under the armpit or around the collarbone (where the lymph nodes are)
- pain – continuous, in one part of the breast or armpit
- lump or thickening – different to the rest of the breast tissue.
4. Report any changes to your GP without delay
5. Attend for breast screening if aged 50 or over
BreastCheck, the National Breast Screening Programme, is a free health service which aims to reduce deaths from breast cancer by finding and treating the disease early. Early detection is a key to survival. The service invites women aged 50-64 for a free breast x-ray every two years. BreastCheck is currently available in the North East, East, Midlands and South East of the country and is in the process of expanding the service nationwide. Anyone who would like further information about breast cancer can contact the Irish Cancer Society Action Breast Cancer. Their services are free, confidential and accessible and include a national helpline, publications, one-to-one support, breast awareness talks, and advocacy.
My friend was due to have her mastectomy today pending the availability of a bed. Her diagnosis has already turned her life upside-down. That wonderful sense of certainty and expectation of continued life and health, has been destroyed. I feel I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for giving me a wake-up call to be more breast aware. She faces a tough road ahead. May the force be with her.